Sabers through the Reich
World War II Corps Cavalry from Normandy to the Elbe
University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2017, 366 pages
Book Review published on: September 20, 2019
The battle record of the U.S. Cavalry has fascinated diverse readerships since the tradition’s earliest exploits on the American frontier. With the arrival of William Nance’s Sabers through the Reich: World War II Corps Cavalry from Normandy to the Elbe, this trend continues with a rigorous academic study that reveals the critical enabling role of the U.S. Army’s mechanized cavalry groups—predecessors of the modern U.S. Cavalry regiments—in the European Theater of the Second World War. Nance, a serving U.S. Army officer who taught history both at West Point and the Command and General Staff College, achieves his aim to “provide the most complete operational history of American corps cavalry to date.”
While historians have authored entire libraries of books on the Second World War, Nance is among the first to fully engage the neglected performance of American cavalry in that seminal conflict. He specifically explores the role of the mechanized cavalry groups that executed dedicated reconnaissance and security tasks on behalf of the many U.S. Army corps that fought across Europe. From the Normandy landings on D-Day, the breakout into Europe, the Battle of the Bulge, and throughout the drive across the Rhine and Germany, Nance describes how these units employed their exceptional mobility to execute a variety of information collection and security functions against an entrenched and determined German army.
Sabers through the Reich, thus, gets at the heart of how the U.S. Cavalry in the European theater of operations enabled large-scale maneuvers at the operational level of war. It is first and foremost a tactical study, narrating with detailed methodology the battle record of each of the numbered mechanized cavalry groups as they enabled the Allies’ broad-front advance across expansive regions defended by experienced German units. More specifically, Nance delves into how each cavalry force acted as wide ranging and independent commands that provided aligned corps commanders with echeloned reconnaissance and security capability. As argued by Nance, “these smallest regimental-size formations in the US Army made an outsized impact,” which proved “constantly larger than that of any equivalently sized unit.”
Nance explains the campaign with academic, yet perfectly accessible, writing across nine chronological chapters that begin with a brief introduction and history of the U.S. Cavalry branch. The bulk of the work then narrates the U.S. Army’s multiyear advance from Normandy to Germany with focus on how mechanized cavalry groups arrayed and fought ahead of continuously advancing corps. However, within each succeeding chapter, Nance covers the specific actions of each numbered cavalry group within their geographical sector. This division allows readers to more easily identify specific units according to individual interest. Not surprisingly, given Nance’s professional background, each section is studiously footnoted with a plethora of primary sources and a thorough bibliography.
Sabers through the Reich, with its focus on fighting at higher echelons in large-scale confrontations, arrives at a particularly useful time as the contemporary U.S. Army orients on countering peer adversaries after decades of counterinsurgency focus. As a study in the employment of operational-level cavalry in a campaign that featured multiple field armies, the work provides insights for both historians and military practitioners to understand how previous generals employed dedicated cavalry forces to sustain battlefield tempo and preserve formation cohesion. It ultimately arrives as timely, well-researched study that offers a detailed description of how mechanized cavalry groups achieved a distinguished combat record against a powerful adversary in challenging circumstances.
Book Review written by: Maj. Nathan Jennings, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas